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Disruptive technologies and shifting demographics are redefining the workforce. In response, smart companies are reinventing workplace learning in an effort to make their programs more relevant and effective, and to create a culture that encourages continuous learning and develops innovative leaders at all levels of the organization.

“Today, workplace learning has achieved mission-critical status,” says Sam Herring, CEO of Intrepid Learning. “Global CEOs face an environment that is more competitive than ever—one in which they live or die by their ability to lead innovation, which can only be realized by having world-class talent that is highly competent, motivated and engaged. Top companies understand this connection, and they know that success requires more than waging a war to acquire talent; it requires that they strategically develop the talent they need to envision and execute the business strategies that will make them successful in the future.”

Get out of the classroom

For most of the last century, workplace learning had a familiar look and feel:  students sat in rows taking notes as an expert stood at the front of the room and dispensed information. Technology offered new ways to communicate and learn, but all too often technology-based learning programs turned out to be little more than upgraded versions of the same traditional K-12 model.

Today, that is changing rapidly. New advances in mobile devices and cloud technology, a deeper understanding of neuroscience and how humans learn best, and the emergence of the millennial workforce—the tech-savvy generation that is the largest in U.S. history—is creating a growing demand for more innovative and informal approaches to workplace learning.

“Employees no longer see their careers as the function of a single organization, but as the culmination of a purposeful set of development experiences they own themselves,” says Mary Slaughter, senior vice president and chief talent officer at Sun Trust. “When you combine their motivations with ubiquitous, on-demand access to skills and knowledge, and the unrelenting pressure to increase workplace productivity, it’s fruitless to maintain traditional, static learning architectures.”

How workplace learning is changing

In the very near future, workplace learning will be about social collaboration, team-based activities, and decentralized peer-to-peer learning. Learning will be mobile, and access will be continuous and instantaneous. Workers will attend fewer scheduled classes and online training sessions. Instead, short videos, game-like simulations, and peer communities that offer networking, information sharing and informal coaching will engage and motivate workers by delivering “anyplace, anytime learning.”

In the future, workplace learning will be increasingly experiential and relationship-based, knowledge will come from everywhere, and companies won’t be able to control or standardize it. Corporate-sponsored training will become less important and knowledge assessments or certifications will become more important. Companies won’t care how their employees acquire knowledge or obtain a certain skill or ability, but only that they can prove their expertise.

“Companies that understand the power of learning are thinking holistically about how learning happens in the workplace, and they are seeking to create environments where learning thrives,” Herring says. “They understand that classroom training (or derivatives such as e-learning or virtual classroom sessions) isn’t enough. They know that an effective learning environment often must include performance support to provide ongoing reinforcement, easy access to knowledge repositories for quick micro-learning lessons, collaborative communities to tap the wisdom of the crowds, and most importantly, abundant opportunities to practice new skills in the work environment, to reflect on one’s performance, and to improve.”

Learning should be continuous

Employees should begin their workplace learning their first day on the job—and never stop. No one should ever wait for a training class or direction from management to get what they need to be successful. Considering the rate at which information changes and the nature of our always-on culture, employees must be proactive. They can’t afford to wait to acquire the knowledge and skills they need for a new job or an expanded role in the organization. In the future,
learning will be continuous and so easy to access that there will be no excuse for people to fail to get the information they need.

Writing in Harvard Business Review, leadership development expert Jack Zenger offers a dramatic example of what can happen if employees don’t take charge of their own career development. When Zenger reviewed his company’s database, he found that the 17,000 business leaders from around the world who had taken part in his firm’s leadership training programs had an average age of 42.

“But the average age of supervisors in these firms was 33,” Zenger writes. “In fact the typical individual in these companies became a supervisor around age 30 and remained in that role for nine years — that is, until age 39. It follows then, that if they’re not entering leadership training programs until they’re 42, they are getting no leadership training at all as supervisors. And they’re operating within the company untrained, on average, for over a decade.” In the process, they are learning bad habits that become deeply ingrained and difficult to change. And by leaving the decisions about their development to others, they risk
eventually stalling or derailing their careers.

Measure results, not activity

Finally, it’s essential for companies to measure the impact of workplace learning and leadership development in a meaningful way, by tying those programs to actual business results. Companies are most comfortable with what they can easily measure and understand. As a result, the learning organization often tracks the “effectiveness” of programs by measuring the number of classes offered and how many employees attended. That’s like having your manager ask what results you achieved this year and responding, “I went to a lot of meetings.”

With big data and predictive analytics there is no longer any excuse for not connecting learning to business-impact metrics.  Learning success can be assessed in terms of sales cycles, deal win rate, service response times, customer satisfaction, product quality and other business metrics as well as employee engagement and productivity. When we redesigned workplace learning at SAP, for example, employee attrition dropped 80 percent. That was a big win for our company. 

What it comes down to is this:  If you can’t prove that the workplace learning you’re offering has a positive and measureable effect on your business, then why bother providing the training?

How is your company redefining workplace learning to help ensure its future success?

Follow me on Twitter: @DearbornJenny. Sign up for the SAP Business Trends newsletter here.


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